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Cardinal O'Brien jumps the shark

Allowing same-sex marriage is equivalent to legalising slavery, claims the head of the Catholic Chur

Listening to Cardinal Keith O'Brien spluttering semi-coherently into the microphone on the Today programme this morning, I felt sorry for my Catholic friends. I felt embarrassed for them. Like the article the cardinal wrote in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph in opposition to plans to allow same-sex marriage, the interview was (to use his own word) "grotesque", almost parodic in its extravagance. The validity of any of the points he might have been trying to make was lost amidst the general hysteria of his language. As was any remaining credibility his church might be imagined to possess.

To allow the unions entered into by same-sex couples to be legally referred to as "marriage" rather than civil partnership would, thinks O'Brien, represent a violation of human rights equivalent to the legalisation of slavery. It would shame the nation. It would be "madness", "arrogant", a "great wrong", an attempt to "redefine reality" at the behest of "a small minority of activists". It would be the next step down a slippery-slope: before we knew where we were, he told John Humphrys, "further aberrations would be taking place and society would be degenerating even further than it already has into immorality".

Here's what His Eminence wrote about slavery:

Imagine for a moment that the government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that "no one will be forced to keep a slave". Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?

When Humphrys pointed out that many might consider this comparison to be rather more "grotesque" than legally-recognised same-sex marriage, O'Brien was having none of it. The analogy was, he asserted, "A very, very good example as to what might happen in our own country if we go down this path."

I mean, really. What we are talking about here is replacing the phrase "civil partnership" with the word "marriage" in official documents. Calling a spade a spade. No more and no less.

O'Brien also makes much of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by which, he claimed, "marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women". On it he founds his preposterous claim that to allow same-sex marriage would be a "violation" of human rights.

The Declaration was written in 1948, at a time when in most countries homosexuality was still illegal (as, indeed, it remains in many countries even today). Gay rights were simply not on the agenda. It was not until last year that the UN Human Rights Council finally passed a resolution condemning discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people. Nevertheless, the Article does not specify that marriage must be between a man and a woman. It merely asserts that "men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family".

Adding the words "or sexual orientation" to that list would neither destroy its meaning nor subvert its purpose, and if the Declaration were being drawn up today it is, I suggest, inconceivable that they would be omitted. Indeed, the use of the phrase "men and women" rather than, say, "human beings", doesn't strike me as an assertion of exclusive heterosexuality. Rather it should be read as a statement of sexual equality, reinforcing the following provision that marriage "shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses". "Spouses", note, not "husband and wife."

Over the past decade, gay marriage has been made legal in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden, in parts of Mexico and Brazil, and in six American states. In none of those places has the sky fallen in. The list is growing, and will continue to grow. In several countries which like Britain have adopted the "compromise" of civil partnership, the debate has moved on, inevitably, to the next step of abolishing the artificial distinction between the two.

More and more, civil partnership looks to have been a temporary solution, a way of appeasing traditionally-minded defenders of the view of marriage as an exclusively heterosexual union -- people who, let's be honest, never wanted the state to recognise gay relationships at all -- until society as a whole had become comfortable with the idea. One step at a time. The coalition's proposal is fully backed by David Cameron, who has rightly noted that the ideal of marriage, gay as well as straight, is inherently a conservative one. This seems like a natural time to embrace full equality in civil (if not religious) marriage. But it will happen sooner or later.

O'Brien's apocalyptic rhetoric, like that of the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, speaks of a Canute-like desperation to hold back the tide. It is as though he has given up on rational debate; as though he knows that the argument has already been lost. He should reflect on the damage his intemperate language will do to the image and long-term prospects of the Catholic Church in these islands.

In a recent message, Pope Benedict XVI contemplated the benefits of silence, a "precious commodity that enables us to exercise proper discernment in the face of the surcharge of stimuli and data that we receive". Learning to communicate, he wrote, "is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak. This is especially important for those engaged in the task of evangelization." Wise words indeed. Cardinal Keith O'Brien might do well to reflect on them.